‘The Past Resonates in the Present’: A Critique of Ken Burns’ ‘America and the Holocaust’

The three two-hour episodes of “America and the Holocaust,” a documentary by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, debuted on PBS beginning Sept. 18.

Towards the end of “America and the Holocaust,” Ken Burns’ new documentary, audiences hear the last entry in Anne Frank’s war diary: “It’s a wonder I didn’t give up all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to it because I still believe, despite everything, that people have really good hearts.

Moments later, historian Deborah Lipstadt appears onscreen to declare that those words are “not Holocaust history.” The American reaction to the German campaign to exterminate the Jews of Europe, the main subject of the film, “does us no credit,” she says.

Of all the films Burns has made, this is the most topical and disturbing. It tells two stories intertwined in graphic detail: Adolf Hitler’s maniacal determination to murder the Jews of Europe and the forces that prevented the United States from doing more to stop him. As the film concludes, the anti-Semitic rants and lies in 1930s and 1940s America still resonate in the political climate of the country in 2022.

The Statue of Liberty appears on screen more than once during the film. Americans are so proud of this national symbol that 3.5 million of them visit it each year. Many identify with the lines of Emma Lazarus’ sonnet hailing the majestic statue as “the mother of exiles”:

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearn to breathe freely,

The wretched scum of your teeming shore.

Send me that, storm-tost,

I raise my lamp next to the golden door.

The film Burns clarified how America fell short of these ideals in the years leading up to World War II. The Ku Klux Klan reemerged as a murderous vigilante force in the 1920s. Much of the country supported euthanasia to bolster the gene pool, racial segregation, social ostracism of Jews, and virulent anti-Semitism of Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh, among others. The Hitler-loving German Bunds drew more than 20,000 people to a 1938 rally at Madison Square Garden.

Unfolding one after another in the film, these strains of hatred depict an America far removed from the country depicted in high school history textbooks.

After Kristallnacht, the Nazi rampage of rape and terror that killed hundreds of Jews and destroyed 2,500 Jewish-owned businesses in Germany, survivors flocked to American embassies seeking to immigrate. Christian Century magazine warned that letting in more Jews would only exacerbate “our Jewish problem.” The Daughters of the American Revolution and the American Legion also opposed increasing the immigration quota for Jews.

Along with expert historians and contemporary film footage, Burns and his partners use the fates of families to tell their story. These include Otto Frank, Anne’s father, and Elfriede Geiringer, the Franks’ hidden neighbor in Amsterdam, whose father and brother died in the camps. Now 100, Guy Stern, the only member of his family to escape, returned to Germany in 1944 as a US Army linguist to interview German prisoners of war. “If I can shorten the war by an hour, maybe I can save a family,” he thought to himself. He broke down in tears in a liberated concentration camp. “You were talking to skeletons,” he said.

Daniel Mendelsohn embarked on a worldwide odyssey to find out what had happened to his family. “The Lost: A Search for Six of the Six Million”, his book on this quest, gives particularity to the unimaginable number of deaths. In the film, he suggests one reason why Americans did not understand the plight of the Jews: “As it was happening to us, we couldn’t believe it. If we couldn’t believe it, how could anyone else believe it?

The film describes the evolution of Hitler’s thought. When Germany annexed Austria in 1938, adding 139,000 Jews to its kingdom, it realized that its thirst for territorial expansion, especially in the East, would increase this population. Extermination became his solution. Four years later, when the Germans discovered that Zyklon could kill Jews for a penny per victim, he ordered a major escalation in gassing.

At that time, President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew what was going on, and much of the American public knew it as well. In November 1942, the New York Herald-Tribune revealed on its front page the existence of the death camps. “Millions of Jews and others are rounded up and killed,” Edward R. Murrow, the famous radio journalist, told his listeners.

The United States had been at war for less than a year and their massive bombardment of Germany had only just begun. D-Day remained a year and a half away. The film depicts both Roosevelt’s dilemma and persistent anti-Semitism in high places. The President knew he could not divert his army to save the Jews, and he saw no practical way to do so. Rather, it aimed to win the war as soon as possible and to punish the murderers of the Jews afterwards. Meanwhile, as rabbis marched on Washington begging for action, some State Department officials lied about the situation and resisted raising the Jewish immigration quota.

In 1944, Americans finally recognized the tragedy, but as the film captures the moment, even that did not induce a will to act. Seventy percent of those polled told pollsters they knew Jews were being murdered, but they grossly underestimated the scale of the killing, putting the death toll at one million when 5 million had already been killed. exterminated. Only 5% of those polled supported allowing more European Jews to come to America.

In the film’s closing scenes, the horrors of Nazi Germany resonate in the American present as white supremacists converge on Charlottesville, racists carry out mass shootings of Jews and blacks, Donald Trump despises immigrants, and a mob attacks the Capitol. Comparing the past so directly to the present is rare in a Burns movie, but sadly it feels on point here.

Even when his films stay in their moment, the past resonates in the present. In it, Daniel Mendelsohn sums up a lesson in studying the Holocaust: “The frailty of human behavior is the only thing you really learn. These people we see in the sepia photographs, they are no different from us. You look at your neighbors, the laundry people, the waiters in the restaurant, that’s who those people were. Don’t kid yourself.

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